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Nurses on the frontline

Remembering them with pride

Mourne’s Florence Nightingale: Margaret Anderson
Mourne’s Florence Nightingale: Margaret Anderson
Nurse Mollie Best
Annie Rebecca Colhoun
Rose Anne McGibbon
The doctor’s daughter: Mary Maud Blakeley

By Staff Reporter

The immense bravery shown by members of the nursing profession from Northern Ireland during the First World War is recorded in a new book. Here, in exclusive extracts, we present some of their remarkable stories.

Mourne’s Florence Nightingale: Margaret Anderson

Margaret Anderson was born at Ballinran, Kilkeel, on December 21, 1881. She was the eldest in a family of eight.

She left school when she was 11 and went to Waringstown when she was 13 to work as a medical receptionist.

Margaret was encouraged to train as a nurse by her employer, a chemist, and trained at the Leeds Union Infirmary. She later trained as a midwife.

In 1916 she joined the Queen Alexandra Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve (QAIMNSR) and was awarded the RRC (Royal Red Cross medal) in 1919 for her war service. Margaret remained in military nursing and worked in Mont Dore Military Hospital, Bournemouth.

In 1921 she went to Iraq as a nurse and on her return became assistant matron at the Royal Infirmary Truro, Cornwall.

Returning to Northern Ireland, she was appointed matron at the temporary Silent Valley hospital, which was open for the duration of the building of the Silent Valley Dam in the Mourne Mountains (1923 to 33). Margaret returned to England and remained there until 1939. During the Second World War, aged 58, she rejoined the nursing reserve and took part in several sorties during the Dunkirk evacuation. She died in 1956. An obituary notice described her as "Mourne's Florence Nightingale".

Nurse Mollie Best: her personal account

Mollie Best was born on January 11, 1886, in Jerrettspass, Co Down. She trained in the RVH from 1909 to 1913, leaving there to train as a district nurse in Dublin. Her superintendent's report describes her "as a willing, cheerful and obedient worker". Mollie applied to join the QAIMNSR at the outbreak of war when she was working as a district nurse in Omagh and died in 1960.

She wrote articles in 1953 for the journal of the RVH League of Nurses, describing her civilian and military First World War nursing experiences.

An abridged version of these articles is reproduced here, beginning when she was working as a district nurse in Omagh.

Mollie Best writes:

"As radio had not yet been invented to keep us posted on the world affairs, and I hardly ever looked at a newspaper, the declaration of war on August 4, 1914, burst upon me as an enormous surprise.

Omagh, being the headquarters of the Inniskilling Fusiliers, men in khaki suddenly appeared everywhere about the streets, and detachments constantly marched through the streets, followed by cheering crowds, and headed by the regimental band playing rousing quick-steps.

As I had always been attracted by the notion of army nursing, these martial signs and sounds were too much for me. I applied at once to join the QAs (Queen Alexandra's) and in a few weeks was instructed to hold myself in readiness to be called up at any moment; but it was not until early in November that I got orders to report at the Cork Military Hospital as soon as possible.

It was not a thrilling assignment, but I hoped, not in vain, for better things to come and I reached Cork next day, leaving most of my belongings in Omagh to be recovered eight months later when I got my first leave.

Cork was so out of the way that few wounded were sent there. The hospital had only one operating theatre, and we rarely saw anything done in it more exciting than hernias, appendices, varicose veins or an occasional fracture; but we had to assist in operations - work which was new to me, as at the RVH it was restricted to (medical) pupils. I was glad of this experience, for I got plenty more of it to do before my army career was over.

One small incident remains in my memory of my last days in Cork. I had nursed a corporal through an attack of shingles, and one Sunday morning I met him taking a party of men to Church Parade.

As we were about to pass, I heard him calling in his best sergeant-major voice: "EYES LEFT!" Then I suddenly realised that for the first and only time in my life I was having the honour of being saluted by the British Army. Three weeks later I was in France.

On an October evening in 1915, I as one of a party of QAs deposited at Boulogne was posted with two other Irish sisters to the 14th Stationary Hospital, formerly the Grand Hotel at Wimereux, an imposing edifice on the seafront. Typhoids and paratyphoids were housed in the main building, while isolation cases were accommodated in the compound at its side in huts of various sizes, down to bathing cabins.

Practically all my time there (except for a few weeks in the cerebro-spinal meningitis hut) was spent in nursing typhoid cases - a new experience for me which I found extremely interesting.

I was most fortunate in having, as medical officer, Captain Marris, who was very keen on his job, endowed with a strong sense of humour, and equally kind to patients and staff.

He was bent on keeping abreast of his profession, but when he tried a new procedure he always warned the men that it was a new experiment and ordered them a bottle of stout when it was over.

A depressing memory of that period is the steady stream of ambulances that passed our gates, day and night, for weeks during the battle of the Somme, bearing wounded men to local hospitals and en route for the hospital ships and England. When I heard that volunteers were wanted for hospital ships I put down my name for the new experience although I was quite happy at 14th General.

At the end of 1916, I was appointed to HMHS St David, which, before the war, had been on the passenger service between Rosslare and Fishguard, but was then running between Boulogne and Dover, Boulogne and Southampton, and sometimes Rouen and Southampton. She carried four MOs and four nursing staff - in addition, of course, to orderlies.

There was a very rough sea on our first crossing, and as soon as we got outside the breakwater my wardmaster told me that all Sisters went to their cabins in such weather and I'd better do the same. I refused haughtily, but it wasn't long before I had to lower my flag and signal to him to carry on while I beat a hasty retreat. My only comfort was to find my three companions down before me.

In a month or so I got the upper hand of sea-sickness and was able to stick at my post in any weather for seven months until all Sisters were taken off hospital ships as the Germans were sinking them wholesale.

During that time I had crossed the Channel more than 120 times, and had many occasions to admire the courage and cheerfulness of terribly wounded men.

I can recollect a lad of about 19 or 20, laughing and joking as he was carried down on a stretcher, although when I went to do his dressings I found that his wounds were appalling.

Those, also, who had been blinded faced their disaster with an incredible display of happy schoolboyishness. The rank-and-file Tommy of 1914-1918 was a grand fellow, and I was proud to have the privilege of doing something to help him."

The doctor’s daughter: Mary Maud Blakeley

Mary Maud Blakeley was a doctor's daughter born on March 6, 1874, in Fivemiletown, Co Tyrone. She trained as a nurse at Chelsea Infirmary, London, between 1895 and 1898.

She served with the Princess Christian's Army Nursing Reserve during the Boer War before joining the QAIMNS as a staff nurse in February 1903, and later was promoted to sister in 1904. During the First Would War Mary was acting Principal Matron in France and Flanders. Matron Blakeley was awarded the RRC first class in January 1916 and a bar to the award in 1919. She was awarded the OBE in 1927.

Her sister, Jane Lavens Blakeley, also served with the QAIMNS. Matron Blakeley is named in two of the diary entries of the Matron-In-Chief from 1919: "Saw Miss Blakeley A/Principal Matron and went round the chief section of the hospital which was full owing to the delay in evacuations for which they were waiting until the moon had gone. I rang the war office to ascertain whether Miss Blakeley could be permitted short leave in the south of France before returning to England as she had been out since August 1914 working very hard and has not had opportunity of going.

"Spoke to Dame Ethel Becher, Matron-in-Chief, who regretted that she could not agree this as Miss Blakeley's services were urgently needed to fill the place of Matron in a very large hospital (Netley) who had suddenly been put on the sick list."

Nurses' Voices from WW1 - the Northern Ireland Connection, is published by the Royal College of Nursing. Anyone interested in a copy can enquire at the RCN library at 17 Windsor Avenue, Belfast

A remarkable lady: Rose Anne McGibbon

Sister Rose Anne McGibbon, of the Queen Alexandra Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS), affectionately known as 'Cis' to her family, was born in Ulster Street beside the gasworks in Lurgan, Co Armagh on September 12, 1884.

She was one of six children. Her father, David McGibbon, was a plasterer by trade and her mother, Mary McGibbon (nee McGreevy), a dressmaker.

They attended church at St Peter's North Street in the town.

Rose Anne's family were all very talented and shared a love of music. They staged concerts and shows locally.

Some of them were also involved with The Dandy Players, a well-known theatrical group of that time.

The McGibbon family are recorded in the 1901 census as residing at 46 North Street, Lurgan. It shows Rose Anne's occupation to be a dressmaker, aged 16 years of age.

Some time in the period after this, Rose Anne commenced nurse training.

Before joining the QAIMNS, Rose Anne worked privately for a local parish priest. Fr Paul Campbell was appointed parish priest of Tullylish, Gilford, Co Down, in January 1898.

Rose Anne's name appears on the 1911 census, showing her as being the resident nurse at this address.

In 1915, Rose Anne enlisted in the QAIMNS. She sailed from Southampton on His Majesty's Hospital Ship Aquitania in November that year, arriving in Suez 10 days later.

Rose Anne served with the 18th Stationary Hospital and the 21st General Hospital in Egypt. During her time there she was acknowledged by S Williams, Matron QAIMNS 21st General Hospital, in a correspondence to the Matron in Chief.

This described Rose Anne as being "kind to the patients, methodical, and capable, pleasant to work with and an excellent ward manager".

Rose Anne met a doctor and romance blossomed. They became engaged and were making plans to marry. She collected items for her 'bottom drawer'. One of these was a beautiful Egyptian brass table which she came across on her travels. This table was eventually transported back to Lurgan and still takes pride of place in a family member's home.

In 1918 Rose Anne became ill and was diagnosed with appendicitis. Following an appendectomy it was noticed that glycosuria (excess sugar) was present. Rose Anne's health would not allow her to remain in Egypt, so after completing over three years of military service, she had to return home for a period of sick leave. Once back in Lurgan she was nursed by her younger sister, Kitty, in their North Street family home.

During this time Rose Anne's condition began to deteriorate. Complications associated with diabetes took their toll on her already fragile health and, sadly, on March 6, 1919, Rose Anne, aged 34, succumbed to her illness and died peacefully. She is buried in Dougher cemetery, Victoria Street, Lurgan, along with other family members.

Rose Anne's fiance wrote to her family after her death, but unfortunately they never got the opportunity to meet him.

Rose Anne McGibbon's name is listed (as Rosa) on the memorial plaque on the west wall in St Anne's Cathedral Belfast.

Decorated for bravery: Annie Rebecca Colhoun

Annie Rebecca Colhoun, third daughter of Mr Robert Colhoun (a contractor with businesses in Londonderry and Buncrana), was born at Londonderry and educated at Strand House School there.

She trained as a nurse in the Tyrone County Hospital, Omagh, and in the Rotunda Hospital, Dublin. Prior to the war Annie was Matron of a small hospital near Vancouver, British Columbia. She joined QAIMNS in June 1916 and was sent to Salonika, serving as Staff Nurse in the 37th General Hospital (1,600 beds) near Monastir, nursing Serbians.

This hospital was aerial bombarded on the morning of March 12, 1917, when Miss Colhoun was wounded. In connection with this, the Military Medal was awarded to her for conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty during an enemy air raid. She attended to, and provided for the safety of, helpless patients. She was assisting Staff Nurse Dewar when the latter was fatally wounded, and although the tent was full of smoke and acrid fumes, and she had been struck by a fragment of bomb, she attended to Staff Nurse Dewar and also to the case of a helpless patient.

In July 1917 she returned to England and served in the Military Hospital at Husley Camp, near Winchester.

Miss Colhoun was married on July 24, 1917, to Private FL Crofton, Canadian Army Service Corps, fourth son of the late Captain the Hon FG Crofton, Royal Navy (d. 1900), and then retired from service. She had one son (Francis David Lowther), born on January 26, 1919.

In addition to the Military Medal, Mrs Crofton was awarded The French Croix de Guerre (bronze star).

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